Like New London itself, music scene is diverse
New London — Andrew “Suave-Ski” Camacho carries two boxes of aromatic pizza through the doors and into ArtFlame’s quaint studio in an artist-filled downtown corner of the city.
Three aspiring artists are inside the State Street studio: 19-year-old Krystalya "K.Rose" Arroyo-Casey, 17-year-old Demarcus "Markeyy" Green, and Camacho's son, 9-year-old Cayden "King Cay" Camacho. All three specialize in different musical genres — R&B, rap and electronic dance music — but have found a home for themselves and their aspirations here and have bonded with one another through their mutual love of music.
Camacho is a hip-hop artist whose fame and recognition is growing; he recently was named in Connecticut Magazine's "40 Under 40" list of the state's most promising young people. He started the nonprofit ArtFlame Music Academy in 2021 to provide a crash-course program for youths with a passion for music and the drive to capitalize from it. His work, he said, was inspired by his son — Andrew Camacho realized the young musician could make royalties from his music when the boy was just 8 years old.
ArtFlame Academy is free with major sponsorship from the Garde Arts Center in New London. The main goal is to help aspiring artists produce music while also learning the ins and outs of an industry notorious for taking advantage of novice artists. ArtFlame also helps artists get legally published and mentors them in audio production, design and other multimedia skills, Andrew Camacho said.
The program has seven students, who are working on a collaborative album, but is striving for a much larger class next session; more information is available at artflame.org.
It only seemed appropriate to locate ArtFlame in New London, a city that has come to be known as welcoming to musical artists. This organization is just one example of the haven New London has created for musicians and music lovers alike and demonstrates the ability music has to bring people from a broad spectrum of musical genres together.
“New London does really attract a diverse group of people,” said Richard L. Martin, a musician and owner of the downtown vinyl and music store The Telegraph at 19 Golden St. He heads the city’s Cultural District Commission, a board on which Andrew Camacho also serves. “It’s a uniquely diverse place in a not-so-diverse region. I get people traveling from all across New England and New York (to his store), and I get a lot of feedback on how wonderful our little city is."
“Music is a great unifier,” he continued. “You don’t have to be of one ethnicity or another to listen to music. It’s a way of bridging gaps between us.”
Mayor Michael Passero said he believes the city holds such sway for the region’s music scene because it is an urban, cultural enclave.
“Why have the artists always been attracted to New London,” Passero asked. “Probably because of the nature of eastern Connecticut. It’s so rural and we don’t have that urban culture. You would have to travel an hour in either direction,” he said, referring to the larger, but farther removed cities of New Haven and Providence, which also have diverse music scenes.
“New London is something unique (with an) urban lifestyle and quality,” Passero said. “If you plucked a neighborhood out of Brooklyn or Manhattan and then (placed) it into this otherwise rural and suburban area, that’s (what) New London is. It’s this rough and gritty urban center that caters to the whole region. It's a place where talented and artistic people are drawn to share with each other.”
And New London, called “the small but mighty city on the Sound” on The Telegraph’s website, telegraphnl.com, seems to shine in that regard.
Daphne Parker Powell, a pop and folk singer-songwriter who splits her time between New London and New Orleans and produces rivetingly soulful music about her emotions and life experiences, believes the city is a hidden gem for new artists whose creative process can thrive in the chaos and noise of the urban scene.
“I came to town in 2002 and began really getting involved in the arts scene in 2004,” she said. “That was such a beautiful moment in the rise of what would become a really vibrant decade in New London. Everyone just wanted to play, to try on different instruments and styles and collaborate with everyone else. It was so easy to become immersed in it because the options seemed endless.”
New London musicians also often are determined to give back, providing a helping hand to other musical artists.
“I lost a bandmate to an overdose in 2008,” Powell said. “It was an accident and he was struggling so hard with a chronic illness that caused him unbearable pain at times. We all feared it, and one day we got the call you never want to get. I remember gathering at a local watering hole in New London where all of his friends just naturally drifted in to hug, to tell stories and cry together.”
They also did more than console one another, however. They found a concrete way to give some hope to others they didn’t even know. They planned for what would become a scholarship in his name — Phil Agins, most known as the lead guitarist in the band The Royale Brothers but frequently played with other musicians in the area — to support aspiring artists and their music school studies, she said.
“We wanted his music, his gift to all of us, to continue to raise up people we had yet to meet,” she said. “The (same) way he had raised us up in his lifetime.”
'We're all here to do music'
ArtFlame's young students hope New London’s welcoming atmosphere for musicians helps establish them in the field.
“I usually make R&B, very old-school '90s type beats, that’s my thing,” K.Rose said with a laugh. She said she started singing as a child and performed in the New London Talent Show, but a few years ago found her musical energy temporarily sapped when her grandmother died.
“I really wanted to get back into it because she loved when I did music, and I think it’s a good way to try and just keep her memory alive,” K.Rose said during a recent interview.
Sitting in the studio with Andrew Camacho and K.Rose, there was an intense feeling of familial bonds. While Camacho set out the pizzas, K.Rose and Markeyy sat in studio chairs freestyling with each other.
Although both are from New London, Markeyy was a new connection for K.Rose. And though he specializes in a differing music style, rap, they have bonded.
“I think it’s great. We’re all just figuring out how to come together to do one thing and one album. With everyone’s different styles, it’s going to be good,” K.Rose said. “We’re all here to do music. It’s something we all bond over. But at the same time, we hang out even outside from doing music.”
Markeyy, a varsity wrestler at New London High School when he isn’t in the studio, said he found a home at ArtFlame although he had not heard of the studio when his aunt signed him up to go there.
“Suave and Pete are like the two dads,” Markeyy said, referring to Andrew Comacho and Pete Helms, the artistic manager who works to acquaint the students with the business end of the music industry. “We’re just like a whole family. We go out to eat together sometimes. We have fun sessions and make music, unwritten, off of our heads.”
During a recent studio session, K.Rose performed while Andrew Camacho, Markeyy and King Cay coached her along, providing support and encouragement.
“You’re cruising, you were made for this,” Andrew Camacho tells K.Rose as she hit a particularly impressive run.
Markeyy cheered her on while King Cay beat-boxed to her track.
“I just want to thank Suave-Ski and Pete, and ArtFlame, for giving me this opportunity to bring out what I’ve been holding in for years,” Markeyy said. “And helping me put music out that might help people in the future.”
“I’ve noticed that a lot of these students that didn’t know each other are getting really close,” Andrew Camacho said. “They’re starting to be like family and help each other out. Talking about music, starting to coach each other. It’s starting to turn into a family. Music does that. It’s the language of the soul.”
Under the direction of instructors Gail B. MacDonald, a University of Connecticut professor in residence and former Day reporter, and Carlos Virgen, The Day's assistant managing editor for audience development, UConn journalism students worked all semester crafting stories in text, audio and photographs that strive to tell parts of the overarching tale of music in New London. They spoke to musicians, businesspeople, city and regional officials, educators and others to inform their work. These stories will be published in The Day and on theday.com.